If there’s a band who’ll suffer under the weight of ‘legend bias’, it really is Iron Maiden. It’s not a new phenomenon either; go back to The Book Of Souls or The Final Frontier, there’ll be an awful lot of critical acclaim for albums that, realistically, don’t deserve it that much. It makes sense though, when Iron Maiden are the biggest British metal band of all time, and such accomplishments want to be celebrated by those indulging in it, and by a fanbase who’s facilitated it. But there’s a difference between passion and being blind to legitimate critical faculties, something which has plagued Iron Maiden for a long time and doesn’t look set to subside with Senjutsu. It’s merely following the pattern its last few albums adhered to, particularly in the case of The Book Of Souls as a double album that’ll probably be needlessly bloated and forgettable beyond a couple of tracks, and yet will still be lavished in gold-plated praise that’s probably mostly undeserved. It’s not like legacy can’t be a factor in what this new material works for some, but in the case of Iron Maiden, that feels like all they’ve got, where the promise of classic albums always being there eclipsing some lacklustre new efforts, but propagating the fact the fact that this band can do no wrong is helping no one. That’s most definitely going into this album with a pessimistic mindset, but the number of bands of this vintage who’ve really gone for broke and delivered this far down the line can be counted on one hand, and as their latest efforts have proven, Iron Maiden are not one of them.
Of course, the reports that the band never even listened to the completed mixes of this album is a more legitimate cause for concern, though for a band their size and with as lucrative profit margin as they have, it really isn’t a surprise that the quality of their work is a non-factor. They can’t be concerned by it knowing that this will sell to the diehards regardless, but is there satisfaction to be found in that? When the creators of this album are effectively unaware of how it’s turned out, that doesn’t feel like a beacon of quality as much as a perfunctory release to keep the ball rolling, where even the double album aspect of Senjutsu feels meaningless when it amounts to so little. Not that any of that is surprising, nor with the subsequent tongue-baths it’ll inevitably receive regardless, but for the standard that Iron Maiden should be held at, this is emphatically not it, and ignoring that to please the egos of multi-millionaires and the teams around them does no favours to the consumers to whom it matters the most.
Because it’s worth realising that, even though the songs are long and they amount to an expectedly hefty listen, that doesn’t make this a particularly dense album. At least, not in the sense where there’s so much creative, innovative mojo flowing throughout it, as much as the long, tepid version of late-period Iron Maiden that abides by a blank ‘bigger is better’ mentality. Of course, that would be the case if they did something with that size, rather than meander and feel bizarrely restrained against a rather uninspiring metal backdrop. There’s always the technical prowess to fall back on without fail, and Steve Harris’ thunking basslines get a lot of opportunities to stand out, but when the soloing feels as though it’s spiralling into the void rather regularly, and there’s no real anchoring presence that even Maiden’s longest songs have typically had, there just isn’t a lot to get enthused about from what’s left. This definitely sounds like an older band in almost all forms; the sound has a lot less force behind it, not just in terms of heaviness or speed, and the production has a stiffness and washed-out quality to it that only exacerbates how underpowered this feels. This isn’t just a peripheral thing either, as the buildups that would once feel grand on Lost In A Lost World or Darkest Hour instead wheeze by, and The Writing On The Wall just feels so tired. The potential is still there, as shown by Days Of Future Past and The Time Machine, both of which remain afflicted by the limitations of the album’s sound, but are able to break through regardless and capture the Maiden magic that’s in dramatically short supply overall. Just from a creative standpoint, Senjutsu crucially lacks any sort of kick that could stop it from dragging as much as it does. On top of the core instrumentation being muted, there’s also some laughably unimpressive string sections, and a piercing synth tone that doesn’t contribute to anything, but is never not noticeable when it’s around.
Maybe with the usual Iron Maiden sound, this could at least slot into a groove that the band’s later work has, where it’s not tremendous but it’s fine enough, but it’s hard to even say that about Senjutsu. It also caps off the longest gap between albums in the band’s career, and especially on the part of Bruce Dickinson, that fallow period has taken a serious toll. For a man who was once such a commanding voice within metal, even so recently, he sounds awful here, where the album’s lack of tightness has bled into his performance, and on a song like Stratego, being overtaken in volume by the instrumentation around him. And that’s where the reality sets in that Senjutsu is most noteworthy within Maiden’s catalogue when it’s doing their usual tricks worse than normal, and nothing else. There certainly isn’t anything to write home about in the lyrics, where the initial hopes of Japanese theming generally break down for more general pictures of war to apply the title’s meaning of ‘tactics and strategy’ to, as yet another example of a particular source of tightness being severely neglected. And thus comes the crawl that is Senjutsu’s almost hour-and-a-half runtime, where the double album concept gets very little opportunity to shine (and where the tracks are split to have six on one disc and four on the other, annoyingly), and where the whole idea is just so lacking. Whereas a new Iron Maiden album is supposed to feel momentous, the impression this gives off is that it’ll be forgotten by the year’s end, if not sooner.
And that’s just the reality of how these things are, where Iron Maiden are in a position of quality not mattering if they can still drop a big album and inevitably see the sales flood in. It’s a cynical thought process that’s about as perfectly cut for this industry as it comes, and while Iron Maiden have been industry players for a fair while now, it’s rarely been as naked as this. This is by no means a death knell, simply because of the weight the name on the cover holds, but it’s not worth the adoration and acclaim it’ll get by birthright. As nice as it’d be to say that Iron Maiden continue to fly the flag for the old guard still delivering, it just wouldn’t be accurate; that’s not even a new phenomenon for them, but on Senjutsu, that nail has gone deeper into the coffin than ever before. The problems that could’ve been ironed out from the band, y’know, listening to their own album are obvious throughout, and that’s what makes this an even more sour listen, maybe above anything else. It’s one thing to make a genuine well-meaning failure, but to not even care enough to address that possibility is something to expect better than.
For fans of: Judas Priest, Saxon, Manowar
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Senjutsu’ by Iron Maiden is out now on Parlophone Records.